The Observer Effect in Writing

I first heard the ‘Observer Effect’ term from author Raksha Bharadia, during a writers’ workshop I attended years ago (2009, I think it was) when she was talking about all the obstacles we put up to stop ourselves from succeeding as writers.

It was a pure ‘a-ha!’ moment, she’d named and identified something that I had always had in the back of my mind. I’d always thought I was the only one who worried about it, though, so it felt good to be told that it was an actual Thing, with the capital letter that it warrants.

The OE isn’t exclusive to writers, though – it’s one that is known to all Indians as the ‘Chaar Log’ Effect.

So what is this ‘Observer Effect’?

The Observer Effect or Chaar Log effect is, in essence – what will everybody else think? What will society think if you become a hair stylist instead of an engineer; like the neighbour’s son – what will they say if you marry a Muslim instead of a Hindu – what will they say when they find out you’re gay – that you’ve failed your school exams because you’re dyslexic – or even that you wear a pink T-shirt when you’re a man.

In writing, the Observer Effect manifests itself when we write a story with sex, or violence, or bad language – anything ‘adult’, in other words – and then wonder what our parents/friends/lovers/bosses would think if they read it.

Obviously, this accounts for many writers choosing pseudonyms – me, as well. I wrote/write most of my fanfiction under a pseudonym, because while I like the freedom of writing whatever I’m in the mood for, without worrying about creating characters or world building – I felt uncomfortable knowing that anyone who did a simple Google search of me – like impressionable young cousins, parents, and older relatives – would find  (sometimes explicit) love stories and violence in the stories under my own name.

Writing under a pen name erases all those fears. I know some people who have fandom specific pen names, and while I never did that – I could never remember so many different passwords and usernames! – I did end up having two versions of the same name (Isha and Isha_libran) across different sites and forums.

Now that I’ve been talking about my upcoming book on this site, and, more importantly, on social media, a lot of my family is curious about my writing. They all want to read the short story that won me my writing contract, and they’re all asking to read the first draft of my book when it’s done. And this is a Problem.

Because – although I don’t worry so much about what they would think about me when they read my work – (my god, you write such strange stories?! – why don’t you write nice, happy, love stories, instead of all these cruel and dark ones? – how come you write about ghosts and paranormal things when you don’t believe in anything?) – I am still a little leery of hearing their opinions of my writing. This is mostly because they’re not the audience I’m writing for.

When I say ‘audience’, I don’t mean that I tailor my writing specifically to cater to someone’s taste, which, to me, would be like  trying to follow a formula to become the author of a bestseller. Nowadays, it seems to be: ‘young Indian + MBA ± engineering education + stupid, controversial Hinglish title (along the lines of ‘Love You Hamesha, Darling’ or ‘She Tied Me a Rakhi! But I Loved Her!’) + 150-200 page narrative rife with spelling mistakes and conversational English = instant bestseller’!

No, when I speak of audience, I mean the people who like to read the kinds of books I write. People who like creepy, dark stories about paranormal stuff, people who don’t mind reading stories without happy endings, people who know life isn’t a beautiful, Yash Chopra-Karan Johar-ish glossy fiction.

People most definitely not like the majority of my family.

And while it’s one thing to be judged for the content of your work – one can always dismiss negative comments about violence or adult themes as well meaning but irrelevant – it’s another thing entirely to have to hear comments from people you know will not like your writing. It would be like taking a fan of classical, carnatic South Indian music to a YoYo Honey Singh concert, and then asking them to critique his music. Does. Not. Compute.

So when friends or relatives ask me to send them a link to my stories, I first check and see if they’re the kind who’ve never read a book in their lives, or hate paranormal/fantasy/sci fi or even slightly unrealistic stories – they usually call these stories ‘fiction’, in a disparaging tone, which makes absolutely zero sense to me, but more on that later.

If they are, I end up making excuses not to share my work with them. Because I don’t want to hear them criticise my writing when I know they won’t even understand it. Even if I tell myself I’m writing, essentially, for myself (and perhaps, on a larger scale, for others like me) and not for them, negative words are worse than sticks and stones; they hurt, dammit.

Writing is such a visceral thing, I sometimes feel like I’m laying my whole mind and heart bare for others to read and understand.

It’s difficult enough, accepting that fact, and still pushing the ‘publish’ button or handing over your work to an editor, without worrying about what can be deduced about your psychology and your character from your plots and character names and word choices. I, for one, could not really take having to explain each story I write to people from my personal life who are not used to reading fiction, or people who don’t like the genre I write.

There should be a name for this phenomenon, too. Maybe I’ll call it the ‘My Personal Life is Separate From My Writing (Please Don’t Ask Me to Explain My Stories at Dinner)’ Effect.

If, years later, you ever read a medical or psychology paper mentioning this, remember: you heard it here first.
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[mood|observer effect SS Kuruganti tired]
[music| Bad Things: Meiko]

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5 Comment

  1. Mr. Braazy Corleone says: Reply

    “As we live we all get caught and torn by various traps. Writing can trap you. Some writers tend to write what has pleased their readers in the past. They hear accolades and believe them. There’s only one final judge of writing, and that is the Writer. When he is swayed by the critics, the editors, the publishers, the readers; then he is finished. And, of course, when he is swayed with his fame and his fortune, you can float him down the river with the turds.”
    – Factotam (copy pasted from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Factotum)

    And you remind me of those lines from that speech of Neil Gaiman… “The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” (copy pasted from http://www.uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address-2012)

    1. Haha, that you compared me to NG is compliment enough. =)

      But yeah, it’s always a difficult thing for me when people I know personally are reading my work – and I KNOW they’re reading it – because I end up wondering what they think, even if I don’t want to. :/

  2. Yes! Yes, this is me and Butterfly Season. Though I shared the book with my sister (who is 7 years younger), my brother (2 years older), my husband and a few select friends, I haven’t told anyone else. Strangers have come back and told me the sex isn’t explicit enough, but I’m pretty sure everyone else will no longer be able to look me in the eye.

    Outside of the scope of writers and writing, I’ve seen the Observer effect with a few of my aunts who stayed married to men they hated because they were worried what the world would think if they divorced. I think that’s much more devastating than having to write under a pen name.

    1. Yes, that’s it, isn’t it? That horrible, skin crawling feeling you get when you think your parents or elderly relatives are reading sex scenes you wrote…brrr.

      Ugh, that’s just horrible. The societal pressure we face as desis is just staggering.

  3. I know people who say that their husband or wife or children are their best critics, or their best beta-readers. But I think that is very rare. Joyce Carol Oates, who is incredibly successful as a writer, has made it clear her husband never reads any of her stuff, and she doesn’t want him to. Not for the reasons you give, exactly (though there is something similar at base), but because he is too important to her. As is his opinion. She respects it; she just doesn’t want it to come between them. And I can respect that.

    I do think the point you make about relatives who are not the intended audience is crucial. As is the plain psychological fact that when you are a child, the opinion of your elders is important to your security in the world. And we never really get over that, no matter how old we are. I would so love for my dad to accept the ways in which I am different from him, even when he disagrees with me – and to see my writing and my storytelling as a valuable extension of my being. But that just isn’t going to happen, in my writing or in my life. So it’s just realistic to accept that.

    Enjoy your pen name. And your freedom.

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